Conflict and Fragility


Tehran’s perpetual motion: The threat of war abroad and contested legitimacy at home

30 Apr 2024 - 11:30
Source: ©Reuters - A young girl is looking on as veiled Iranian women are praying during a religious ceremony to commemorate the death anniversary of Fatima, the daughter of Prophet Mohammad, in downtown Tehran, Iran, on December 17, 2023.

By Hamidreza Azizi and Erwin van Veen

Editor’s introduction

In September 2022, the death of Mahsa Amini marked a major turning point for Iran. The event sparked nationwide protests, which rapidly evolved from calls to discard controversial hijab regulations to calls to overthrow the Islamic Republic. The Iranian government responded with repression, killing over 400 protesters in late 2022 and early 2023, according to human rights groups. 

The Clingendael blog series ‘Iran in transition’ explores power dynamics in four critical dimensions that have shaped the country’s transformation since: state-society relations, intra-elite dynamics, the economy, and foreign relations. This blog post analyzes how the threat of conventional war with Israel and the US puts the shaky legitimacy of Iran’s ruling elites under even greater pressure, leading them to clamp down domestically in a show of force to re-assert themselves that is not dissimilar in intent to their rocket and drone strike on Israel.

The threat of war… 

On April 19, Israel conducted a limited strike on an airbase in Isfahan (central Iran). It was widely interpreted as a warning rather than an effort to escalate the emerging direct conflict between Tel Aviv and Tehran, especially since Iranian officials downplayed the incident while Israel did not claim it publicly. The strike followed an unprecedented attack by Iran on Israel on 13 April. This, in turn, was widely viewed as retaliation for a prior Israeli strike on Iran’s consulate in Damascus, which resulted in the death of several high-ranking members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Before that, Iran and Israel long played a game of cat and mouse in Syria that commenced a few years after the outbreak of the Syrian civil war. Iran consistently seeks to improve its military position while Israel consistently tries to keep it to a minimum. 

Both sides portrayed themselves as victorious in these reciprocal attacks of 13 and 19 April. They also signaled their reluctance to engage in full-scale war. Heavy US pressure helped avert a high intensity regional war. But despite diplomatic mediation and signaling, April 2024 did mark the most dangerous phase of confrontation between Iran and Israel in decades. Even the overt anti-Israeli rhetoric of the Islamic Republic since its establishment in 1979 and growing tensions since at least the1990s never reached the current level of escalation. Israeli and Iranian strikes and counter-strikes could easily have had unintended consequences that would have forced one party to ratchet up the escalation ladder with the concomitant risk of regional conflict. Although arms have fallen relatively silent for now, the mere occurrence of this episode turned a hypothesis about what might be into an event that can be repeated. 

An anti-missile system operates after Iran launched drones and missiles towards Israel, as seen from Ashkelon, Israel April 14, 2024. ©Reuters

… plus social fragmentation at home…

On Saturday, April 13, just hours before Iran launched a missile and drone attack on Israel, a notable increase in police and security forces could be observed on the streets of cities across Iran, particularly in Tehran. Abbasali Mohammadian, the Tehran police chief, announced that the heightened presence of security personnel in public spaces was intended to confront “social disorders related to the hijab.” He equated unveiling with breaking the law and warned that the police would rigorously prosecute such lawbreaking.

It turned out to be part of a broader crackdown against women over the hijab mandate, against dissidents criticizing the IRGC’s actions and against anti-regime voices more broadly. It was likely the imminent threat of war with Israel that triggered this new campaign of repression. After all, domestic dissent in Iran would have been a major weakness in the ability of the country’s ruling elites to wage a sustained conflict. Even though Israel is also a deeply divided society – consider the polarization between secular and ultra-orthodox segments of society with regards to military service, or prime minister Netanyahu’s low popularity ratings – its government is not permanently dominated by the same segment of its political elites and its administration is more functional. 

Simply put, by cracking down on dissent at home, Iran’s ruling elites aim to avoid domestic unrest while facing the threat of war abroad. Similarly, by threatening war abroad, Iran’s ruling elites aim to avoid deterioration of their credibility and deterrence at home as well as in the region. This Catch-22 seeks to avoid having to fight a domestic and foreign ‘war’ at the same time. 

… result in targeting women and dissidents 

The renewed hijab enforcement drive that started on 13 April, dubbed “Project Noor,” evoked memories of the actions by the notorious “morality police” that ignited the 2022-2023 public protests. It also set back the clock in the sense that the Iranian authorities made it clear that dress code violations are no longer tolerated and that enforcement is back in, building on recent legislative moves to reinforce hijab norms. Majid Mirahmadi, Deputy Minister of Security of the Interior Ministry, further articulated this shift by indicating that the government’s previous “patience and restraint” had mistakenly created the belief among the populace that unveiling had become officially acceptable. He emphasized the government’s unwavering stance on the issue instead. A subsequent surge in reports and videos documenting harassment and the arrest of women who failed to comply with the mandatory hijab regulations illustrated heightened enforcement. Ahmadreza Radan, Chief of Police of the Islamic Republic, noted that the initiative employed “advanced technology and equipment” to identify violators in public places. Other measures have included the sealing of cafes, restaurants, and shopping centers that served women not adhering to the hijab requirements. Within two weeks, it became evident that there is ruling elite consensus on tighter enforcement of social codes with Supreme Leader Khamenei acting as its driving force

In addition to women, critics of the Islamic Republic’s foreign policy were targeted as well. Several political activists, media personnel, and newspapers that criticized the government’s response to Israel’s consulate attack were summoned to court, for example. The intelligence branch of the IRGC also declared its intent to “decisively deal” with online supporters of Israel. Traditionally, criticism of foreign policy used to enjoy a wider latitude of tolerance even in Iran’s tightly controlled media environment. A final element of growing repression is the uptick in the number of ‘political’ executions on vague grounds since 2023, whose main function is to instill a climate of fear. 

In all, this campaign of domestic repression that launched in near-parallel to Iran’s strike on Israel made two things clear with regard to state-society relations. First, the cautious tolerance of the authorities of more liberal lifestyles that emerged in the wake of the 2022/2023 protests is now over. The Iranian government effectively seized the opportunity presented by the confrontation with Israel to securitize society and domestic politics, thereby consolidating its control. Moreover, the crackdown reconfirmed that Iran’s ruling political and clerical elites, including much of its enforcement apparatus, prefer to be feared rather than loved, to paraphrase Machiavelli. 

… deepening a fundamental problem of legitimacy

In the 1990s and 2000s Iran went through  several alterations between more reformist and more conservative periods of rule, its society oscillating between hope and concern with regards to prospects for better lives, the country’s national development prospects and its place in the community of nations. Longstanding tension between reformists and conservatives exploded in 2009 during the Green Movement protests, which were a popular response to efforts by the conservative establishment to forestall negative electoral results. Despite moderates being in power in the 2010s, Iran’s conservatively religious, hardline and security elites under Ayatollah Seyyed Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader, slowly expanded their power base. This culminated in the presidential and parliamentary elections of 2021 and 2024. 

The protests of 2019 and 2022/2023 showed the popular discontent that had accumulated with the lack of results from this oscillation in power between moderates/reformists on the one hand, and hardliners/conservatives on the other hand in terms of the deteriorating quality of living conditions, conservative constraints on lifestyles and worsening economic prospects it has been producing – with Western sanctions also playing a role. It gradually dawned on large parts of Iran’s population and some of its political elites that reforming the Islamic Republic from within was too fiercely resisted by key parts of the regime’s establishment.

The legitimacy of Iran’s political classes declined substantially as a result, especially over the past few years. Even though reliable surveys are hard to find, several proxy indicators illustrate the matter. To begin with, the officially reported turnout of parliamentary elections dropped from c. 60% in 2016 to c. 40% in both 2020 and 2024. Growing numbers of Iranians are not abiding by Islamic regulations anymore either, resisting these as symbols of the regime’s rule. Moreover, the scale of the 2022/2023 protests was beyond anything the country had witnessed before. All of Iran’s provinces featured protests, over 100 major cities were involved and ethnic-minority inhabited border regions were particularly engaged in acts of protest. Finally, research points to a high and accelerating level of brain drain from Iran over the past few years as part of a longer trend. This is likely to increase as both structural and precipitating causes deepen and occur more frequently. 

The result is greater securitization and more risk-taking 

The past few weeks have made it clear that Iran’s ruling elites seek to project strength abroad and at home to counter perceptions of weakness at home and abroad. They have sought to signal that military force is their preferred method to address international challenges if put in a tight corner – not diplomacy. One example is Iran’s recent shift from a policy of “strategic patience” to a more direct military response to Israel. Another instance – with the benefit of hindsight - were the IRGC missile strikes against Pakistan and Iraq in late January. 

These recent events sit in the longer trend of the militarization of Iran’s foreign policy that goes as far as having made the Foreign Ministry the mouthpiece and executive civilian branch of the IRGC despite the constitutional fact that these two entities are supposed to operate as independent organs of the state. Tensions already surfaced in a leaked interview with Mohammad Javad Zarif during the last months of his tenure, when he criticized the Revolutionary Guards for undermining Iran’s diplomats, framing IRGC encroachment in a dichotomy of “diplomacy versus battlefield.” It is, for example, widely known that Iranian ambassadors to Middle Eastern countries, especially those linked with the “Axis of Resistance” such as Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen, are directly chosen by the IRGC and are often former members of the Guards. 

Statements by Hossein Amir-Abdollahian – Iran’s foreign minister – moreover indicate that Iran’s security elites gave the Ministry of Foreign Affairs a window of ten days after the Israeli strike on its Damascus consulate to secure international condemnation. Failing to secure diplomatic results, the IRGC proceeded with its own response. Finally, in the wake of Iran’s missile attack on Israel on 13 April, the Swiss ambassador was summoned not by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, but by the IRGC, according to Mojtaba Abtahi, an advisor to the Minister of the Interior (in Iran, the Swiss embassy acts as US intermediary). This story was later confirmed by The New York Times despite Iran’s foreign ministry spokesman, Nasser Kanaani, denying it.

Where will this lead?

Iran’s ruling elites have to deal with two weaknesses as they navigate the Israeli military campaign in Gaza: Regional tensions and domestic discontent. The former consists of their vulnerability to a direct, conventional military confrontation with Israel and the US. The latter consists of a low level of domestic legitimacy. Iran’s leaders fear that clever exploitation by their adversaries can cause these weaknesses to reinforce one another. To prevent this, Iran’s ruling elites have shifted their focus from diplomatic solutions to securitized ones with regard to their foreign policy. As Zarif put it: “Diplomacy has been sacrificed for the sake of the battlefield.”  

Domestically, they have opted for renewed repression of dissent and protest. The hijab issue has re-emerged, together with the role of women in Iran, as focal points for domestic securitization, because such dress code violations symbolize broader social disobedience against Iran’s ruling conservative elites, in addition to protesting their patriarchic and discriminatory strictures. 

In the process of securitization, Iran’s rulers are becoming more risk-taking rather than more risk-averse. Despite this, the leaders of the Islamic Republic paradoxically remain averse to an outright war with Israel or the United States for the moment. This reluctance was evident in their measured response to recent tensions and by informing adversaries of their intentions. Nevertheless, a willingness is emerging to sustain a higher level of tensions in the region in which a perpetual threat of war and heavier domestic repression go hand in hand.

Hamidreza Azizi and Erwin van Veen are the initiators of this blog series.

Read all blogs in this series